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Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivarian Socialism, and Asymmetric Warfare

Authored by Dr. Max G. Manwaring. | October 2005

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The author of this monograph answers questions regarding ?Who is Hugo Chávez?? ?What is the basis of Chávez?s bolivarianismo?? ?What is the context that defines Bolivarian threats?? ?How does Chávez define contemporary asymmetric warfare, and what are the key components of success?? ?How can the innumerable charges and countercharges between the Venezuelan and U.S. governments be interpreted?? And ?What are the implications for democracy and stability in Latin America??

His conclusions are, first, that Hugo Chávez might be a military caudillo, but he is no ?nut case.? He is, in fact, what Ralph Peters calls a ?wise competitor.? Second, as such, he will not even attempt to defeat his enemies on their own terms. Rather, he will seek to shift the playing field away from conventional military confrontations and turn to nontraditional forms of assault on a nation?s stability and integrity. Third, as a consequence, it is important to understand that Chávez understands that every player in the international community from small powers to the U.S. superpower must cope simultaneously with four levels of contemporary threat. Accordingly, all the types of threats in those four levels of conflict are seen as methods of choice?or areas for exploitation?for any commercial, ideological, or other movement that is dedicated to achieving control or radical change in a given nation-state. Fourth, Chávez understands that asymmetric warfare is the methodology of the weak against the strong. He understands that this type of conflict requires more than weaponry and technology. It requires lucid and incisive thinking, resourcefulness, determination, imagination, and a certain disregard for convention. Chávez considers three issues to be key to success (or failure) in contemporary asymmetric conflict. They are closely related to bolivarianismo?s security scheme, social programs, and communications efforts. In these terms, he understands the sophistication and complexity of war as a whole. He also understands the value of facilitating the processes of state failure to achieve his objectives of establishing socialism for the 21st century, economic and political integration, and Latin American grandeza (greatness). And Chávez understands the centrality of relative moral legitimacy in conflict?and the critical importance of creating popular perceptions that his cause is morally correct, and will lead to a better life for all.

Finally, taken all together, this is ?war as a whole,? or what Chávez calls ?Guerra de todo el pueblo? (interchangeably: war of all the people, asymmetric, fourth-generation, or irregular war). At a minimum, Chávez and Venezuela are developing the conceptual and physical capability to challenge the status quo in Latin America, and to generate a ?Super Insurgency? intended to bring about fundamental political and economic change in the region. Thus, as one sees Chávez?s ideas developing and maturing, it is becoming more and more obvious that his bolivarianismo is resonating with large numbers of people in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America?and that he should not be taken lightly.

This is the starting point from which to understand where Chávez may be going and how he expects to get there. And it is the starting point from which to understand the side effects that will shape the hemispheric security environment now and for the future. The consequences of failing to take this challenge seriously are clear. Unless thinking, actions, and organization are reoriented at the highest levels to deal with contemporary asymmetric realities, the problems of global, regional, and subregional democracy, stability, and security will resolve themselves?and not likely for the better.


Chávez understands contemporary asymmetric warfare. He understands that this type of conflict requires more than weaponry and technology. It requires lucid and incisive thinking, resourcefulness, determination, imagination, and a certain disregard for convention. The promulgation of such a concept requires a somewhat different approach to conflict than that generally used by the United States over the past several years. That is, Chávez?s strategic paradigm outlined above acknowledges that the ultimate outcome of any asymmetric war is not determined primarily by the skillful manipulation of violence in the many military battles that take place once a war of this nature is recognized to have begun. Rather, control of the situation and ultimate success is determined by 1) the sophisticated political-psychological application of all the instruments of power; 2) the skillful exploitation of the processes of state failure to bring about the political conditions necessary to establish socialism for the 21st century; and 3) the level of moral legitimacy the communications/propaganda campaign generates. To the extent that these factors are strongly present in any given strategy, they favor success. To the extent that any one component of the model is absent, or only present in a weak form, the probability of success is minimal.

The above outline takes us back to where we began. It provides the basis for the understanding and judgment that civilian and military leaders must have to be clear on what the situation is in Venezuela and what it is not. The hard evidence over time underscores the wisdom of Clausewitz?s dictum, ?The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.?71 Chávez?s asymmetric war challenge is, thus, straightforward. Colonel Thomas X. Hammes reminds us that this kind of war is the only kind of war the United States has ever lost.72


71. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, pp. 88.

72. Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, USMC, ?4th Generation Warfare,? Armed Forces Journal, November 2004, pp. 40-44.